The Transformative Political Power of Matthew 25

The Transformative Political Power of Matthew 25 April 23, 2015

by Dr. Ashley K. Fernandes

With Hillary Clinton and several Republican rivals entering the presidential race over the past few weeks, the 2016 contest is “officially” underway, the media tells us.  They have confirmed their own self-fulfilling prophecy with a frenzy that has included, among other things, a “Hillary Announcement Countdown meter” on the television screen, and a literal stampede of reporters (who outnumbered voters) running to catch a glimpse of Senator Clinton at an early Iowa event.

In my own home (and crucial swing) state of Ohio, the quirky but highly effective governor—Mr. John Kasich—has been starting to make news all on his own, by not entering the presidential race (yet). Take, for example, Josh Kraushaar’s  2014 column in the National Journal, “The Republican Presidential Contender Everyone’s Overlooking”:  “As governor, he’s presided over a Rust Belt renaissance, with the state’s unemployment rate dropping from one of the highest in the country in 2009 (10.6 percent) to around the national average (7.2 percent)… In 2013, Kasich signed a sizable tax cut thanks to the state’s newfound budget surplus. Kasich was among the first Republicans to tout the party’s need to reach out to the disadvantaged, and he lived up to his rhetoric by passing prison-sentencing reform with support from African-American legislators.”

That column was written before Kasich’s 64-33% rout of his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race in November 2014. That was also before the unemployment rate in Ohio hit 5.1% too, below the national average. And now the headlines have changed—Daniel McGraw writes in the left-leaning Politico in April 2015 that Kasich is the “GOPs strongest candidate.”  So how has a politician in a swing state, from a party despised by the coastal elite and its media wing, been so highly effective at governing and producing results?

My answer is, at least in part, because he has unabashedly and seamlessly integrated his Christian moral beliefs into his life, public policy, and service. What follows is my argument, and the roadmap to do so is Kasich’s often-referenced Matthew Chapter 25. Now, I am not a political scientist, nor am I a theologian. I am a physician and a philosopher, and a citizen in a free nation. Whether or not Mr. Kasich runs for president, he has suggested through this Gospel chapter, a model for action to others in his party and beyond. You can be courageous, transparent and unashamed about Christianity, and still win, because good policy can be inspired and born from truth.

Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid in our state to an estimated 450,000 persons, under the Affordable Care Act, is extremely controversial to say the least, particularly among conservatives nationally and in Ohio. He has never defended the Affordable Care Act, but he has defended his decision to expand Medicaid for the poor. The Wall Street Journal angrily wrote of his decision, “Not to be sacrilegious, but the Republican used to know better. Now Mr. Kasich seems to view signing up for this part of Obamacare as an act of Christian charity and has literally all but claimed that God told him to do so. The problem is that his evangelizing failed to convert the Ohio legislature, which is run by Republicans who understand the brutal budget and regulatory realities of participating in new Medicaid…Mr. Kasich really must feel like he’s guided by the Holy Spirit instead. ‘When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor,’ to quote one of his favorite lines.”

What further angers and divides so many Christian conservatives about Kasich’s approach has been his repeated use of Matthew Chapter 25 as an inspiration (often misinterpreted as a “justification”) for his decision to expand Medicaid, as well as for his other initiatives geared at easing the burden of the poor. (Just Google “John Kasich and Matthew 25” to see a host of fundamentalist Christian websites and blogs with searing criticism and purportedly faith-inspired rebuttals.)

Briefly, Matthew 25 has three parts. The first is the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Five virgins were foolish and unprepared for the coming of the bridegroom, shutting themselves out of the wedding feast when the groom returns unexpectedly. The wise ones, however, prepared themselves for the groom and were welcomed into the wedding feast. The second parable is the Parable of the Talents. Most of us are familiar with this story of three servants given different talents “each according to his ability” (Mt. 25: 15) by the Master. Two use their talents wisely and they multiply them; but the third buries his talents and essentially, wastes the opportunity given to him. While the first two servants are rewarded, the last is punished. The third part is the Judgment of Nations, in which Christ at the end of time divides all people into two camps—sheep (on the right) and goats (on the left). From this beautiful narrative we remember most these lines, “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”(Mt. 25: 34-40)

In some interviews, Kasich has referenced simply “the end” of Matthew 25 (the Judgment of Nations), but in others, be asks critics to (re)read the chapter itself. For example, in Michelle Cottle’s recent National Journal article, “The Case for Kasich,” she quotes the governor as saying, “how amusing it is to me that the conservative movement—a big chunk of which is faith-based—seems to have never read Matthew 25.” This point is crucial. Most critics condemn his use of the “least of these” for Medicaid expansion as too simplistic, unprincipled, and judgmental of capitalist or free-market doctrine. But Kasich is a smart enough man to not “skip to the end.” He wants you to understand the chapter in its entirety. And that is where—if one reads the parts of Matthew 25 both with temporal and substantive priority—its transformative power in the public square and public policy becomes clear. I think the three parts of Matthew 25 are meant to be related, and this is significant from a philosophical and political point of view. And, if Biblical scholars disagree, I would only say that I claim my right as a philosophical scholar is to connect them myself.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins principal meaning rests in “interiority,” the preparation of oneself to accept Christ. But how does this happen? A person, Pope John Paul II would say, changes only through action—human action in which he understands himself as the executor of an authentically good act. One “grasps” the reality of truth (or Truth, in reference to Christ), and one moves closer toward that person we were called to be by our Creator. This personal transformation of character must come first. One’s eyes must be opened; one must see for himself what is at stake. From a political point of view, I take this to mean that policies which promote self-efficacy for individual persons must always be the first goal of government. School choice, religious liberty, prison reform, pro-life legislation, and the promotion of small business through economic liberty—all of these are geared toward the dignity of the person.

The Parable of the Talents suggests that now that you are beginning to know yourself and your calling—what are you prepared to do with what you have been given? Policies which promote innovation and competition, which encourage work and higher education (including community colleges, trade schools etc.), as well as home schooling and welfare reform—these are policy initiatives which can be said to be inspired by our duty to move (metaphysically speaking) from potentiality to actuality. All require free choice. All require us to know ourselves as the authors of our actions. And, conversely, policies (such as the vast majority of The Affordable Care Act) which discourage responsibility for one’s health, discourage the free expression of religious beliefs, and hinder competition in business while simultaneously inflating the government’s role in individual and family decision-making ought to be rejected.

And at the end of Chapter 25, Jesus tells us “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” One can of course, understand this story independently from parts one and two. But there is a deeper meaning, both morally and politically, if one examines the Judgment of Nations in light of what has preceded it.  We are called to change ourselves, to transform ourselves in heart and mind with an orientation towards Christ. In a secular society, the concept is still understood: if one only turns to truth, acts on it, understands it as his own action, he begins to build character in himself. From there we work ourselves into the world (the Parable of the Talents), using what we have been given through free action to further transform ourselves, our families, and society. Throwing money at the poor in the name of compassion, or allowing bureaucrats to control the machinery of an enormous healthcare infrastructure, is not only ineffective but contrary to the first two lessons of Matthew 25.  But the Judgment of Nations also reminds us that in the end, there will still be those who need us. There will be those who cannot feed themselves, or clothe themselves, or struggle incessantly to do so. There will be those who make mistakes, who backslide, who we view as “the other.” But we, as a transformed people, are still drawn to them, bound to them in an obligation found (not in government) but in our nature.

Matthew 25 can be read as a Biblical foundation for personalism, a philosophical world-view promulgated by everyone from the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (The Person and the Common Good, 1947), to Martin Luther King, Jr., to St. Pope John Paul II himself. Maritain says in his classic book, “In truth, if human society were a society of pure persons, the good of society and the good of each individual person would be one and the same good.” In short, to be a person is to be relational—our individualism cannot be so all-encompassing (so “I-focused”) that we forget the “thou” part of personhood. Society therefore is for the person, not the other way around. No policy which destroys a single human person in body, mind or soul is worth it, and in fact, policies which promote the dignity of the person ought to be our only priority. Socialism is flawed because it prizes an enormous, amorphous “government” above the person; but likewise, failing to see at least one legitimate role of government—that of helping the poor who either cannot, or have not yet grasped how to help themselves—is to place value on profit or individual liberty above that of the person.

So Mr. Kasich was right. You can be a Christian conservative—embracing character and responsibility, while retaining a relational view of the person in which our obligation to the “least of these” is rooted. He has brought personalism to the forefront in public policy. For Republicans, personalism is an opportunity for a new, rigorous foundation for policy initiatives contrary to the liberal stereotypes but compatible with authentic Christian beliefs. For Democrats, it is nothing less than a model for radical reform for a party on a moral death-spiral. Through Matthew 25, Kasich has become an evangelist for Holy Scripture. (How many liberal atheist journalists were forced to do a web search for “Matthew 25” and actually had to read it in order to understand the reference?)  But he has also courageously reminded well-meaning conservatives of their duties to each and every person—those that are born, those that are unborn, those that can help themselves, and those that cannot. That kind of courage is desperately needed in our next President, whoever he (or she) is.


 

Ashley-Fernandes_2013Ashley K. Fernandes, MD, PhD, is Associate Director of the Center for Bioethics and an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University.

 


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